November 1, 2020
All Saints Day, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
Ever since the pandemic began, congregations have worked to find ways to worship on line. Communities have tried a variety of methods, as they’ve learned to project, Zoom, stream or share their service in a way that works for them. St. Andrew’s Lutheran in Mahtomedi where my father worships, and where my mother joined him until just a few months before her death, offers online worship services as we do.
But whereas Tim and Paul are generally creating new renditions each week for the hymns and anthems we include in our services, St. Andrew’s musicians often share a tape of a hymn recorded when the congregation was still together and worshiping in person. Last week, they included a tape of their congregation singing A Mighty Fortress from when they worshiped last Reformation. I suspect this morning, they will have sung along with last year’s recording of For All the Saints.
I often have the chance to log on to their service for a few minutes before tuning in to our stream. Sometimes, if the timing and the angles are just right, I can glimpse the back of my dad standing to sing the opening hymn. Once in a while, I even see my mother, still singing near him. There she is — singing with us, even from the other shore, where she now sings in glory. It’s the best All Saints Sermon I’ve ever seen.
On this day, we remember all the saints who have gone before us. We remember that they still sing with us. We are encouraged and buoyed by the witness of those who loved and taught us, and we discover how thin the veil is between this life and the life to come, as we reflect on the ways they live for us even now.
All Saints Day has been commemorated for something like 1500 years. The church early on decided it was wise to find one day to sweep up any saint who may have gone unnoticed or unnamed, and honor them all at once – a one size fits All Saints Day. Legend has it when the Pantheon in Rome was claimed by the Christian Church in 605, it was rededicated as a church to All Saints[i].
As you may know, the Pantheon is a grand, circular building, built so wide and so tall, that the construction couldn’t close the dome without collapsing it onto the rest of the building. So it’s built with a hole in the roof, open to the sky. One can stand inside and peer up into the heavens as if connecting with the saints on high. It’s a majestic, awe-inspiring place.
This is why Jesus’ Beatitudes[ii], this gospel reading from Matthew, sounds a little strange to us. Jesus’s blessings don’t sound as lofty or saintly as you might presume by standing in the Pantheon. Jesus doesn’t pronounce blessing for those who have lived exemplary, or profoundly holy lives. He doesn’t say “Sainted are those who have performed heroic acts of faith,” or “Blessed are those who modeled a deeply intelligent spirituality.” The lives he commends seem rather unassuming and ordinary.
“Blessed are those who are striving for righteousness,” Jesus asserts. “Blessed are those who are meek. Saintly are those who merciful, those who are persecuted, those who mourn.”
Jesus doesn’t proclaim blessing as a reward for remarkably faithful discipleship. Blessings are apparent in lives that look normal. Blessings comes into lives that are touched by ordinary experiences of both joy and sadness, and plenty of hard work and normal experiences in between. Blessing comes not from peering into the heavens and catching glimpses of glory, but by looking across the table, maybe across the Zoom link, and across the globe. Blessings come to those who, with us, are hungering for a more just future, are grieving over the sadness around us, and are sometimes struggling to just put another step in front of the other.
There is so much sorrow in the world this year. 225,000 American lives lost to this virus, and five times more than that across the globe. So many, many people sick and simply not recovering from the lingering symptoms. So many reminders too, of racial inequity. Now so many people left homeless from wildfire or hurricane.
And to top it off, we are completely undone by this election. Tuesday simply can’t get here soon enough, and still we worry that regardless of the outcome, which may not be computed until well past Tuesday, the rhetoric during these last few months will have severed something precious to us in the way we govern, and in the way we see our neighbors.
The anxiety is beyond anything most of us have ever faced. Where is the blessing in a year like this? How can we imagine any of this to be saintly?
Jesus’ Beatitudes remind us that if we only think of blessings in terms of success, we will miss them. If we only think of blessing as coming to us in the year our candidate is elected, our world is virus-free, every one of our family and friends is healthy and safe, and we have not a care in the world, we’ll miss the gift Jesus brings.
Jesus teaches us that blessings are abundant in every human story, in the very struggles we face and the burdens we carry. We are blessed every time we find the will to give thanks for another day, every time we renew hope, every time we utter the simplest of prayers. Saints are not those who have lives free of pain or hardship; saints are those who, like every one of us, live and die, rejoice and weep, succeed and fail, and discover God’s grace along the way.
We don’t have to strain our necks to find God’s blessings. We don’t have to be the most successful or triumphant for others to glimpse sainthood in our lives. The veil to heaven isn’t lifted through lives that are perfect or amazing. Rather, Jesus strips away the divide from heaven, and joins us on earth, telling us through his very life, that the reign of heaven has come near.
Blessed are you who are juggling work and caring for children and elderly parents. Blessed are you who have lost jobs, and haven’t received an email from potential employers in weeks. Blessed are you who are grieving the people you never had the chance to say goodbye to. Blessed are you who can’t figure out a safe way to enjoy the holidays. Blessed are you who are facing an unclear future. Blessed are you who feel you haven’t done anything well in months, and are altogether exhausted and spent.
God is with you in this struggle. God is present in your pain. God is working to bring you rest from your despair. Child of God, Lift up your head. You are alive! You are loved! The reign of heaven has come to earth.
The earliest word we know of for earth, dhghem, was also the root for the words, “humus” and “human,” and quite beautifully, “humility,” and “humble” as well[iii]. We don’t have to strain to find blessing or sainthood in something outside ourselves. We discover it in recognizing our humanity, our humility our connection with the very dust of the earth from which we were created. To be human is to realize there never really was a veil between heaven and the earth at our feet. Rather, we are dust, and we are beloved. We are the very Children of God, God’s own living saints, full of grace, surrounded with sorrow, but also with opportunities to join God in restoring life and goodness to the world.
Generally at Gloria Dei, as I’ve said, Tim and Paul and our other musicians produce fresh recordings of the hymns and anthems that we sing. But later today, we’ll sing with a recording of the Kontakion we’ve sung many times. The Kontakion’s roots are as ancient as the observance of All Saints Day, stretching back to the 6th century. We’ve sung this particular version from the Orthodox liturgy on All Saints’ Day, and at funeral services at Gloria Dei for many years.
As we sing it today, we’ll again join our own voices with those who no longer sing with us here, but who now join us, singing from the heavenly choir. If you listen, you’ll literally be able to hear Lois Wattman’s sweet soprano from the back corner of the choir pews where she sat for so many years.
If you listen with your heart, I believe you’ll somehow still hear Ron Clark singing from the opposite side of the chancel. I trust you’ll even hear my mother, and your sisters and brothers, your children, and great grandparents, and all those who have gone before us, who rest from their labors, but still join our song.
Though they are on another shore, the veil between them and us is very thin, and their voices are still able to implore us to join theirs. Though they are no longer with us, they will remind us to be gentle with ourselves, to recognize we are part of the earth. They will beseech us to heal it, to live lives that strive for righteousness, that work for peace, that show mercy to the pain within and around us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Though we are but dust of the earth, even at the grave, the saints will still compel us to make our song. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
[i] Gertrude Mueller Nelson, To Dance with God, Paulist Press, New Jersey, 1986, p. 226-227.
[ii] Gospel reading for All Saints’ Day, Matthew 5:1-12. See also 1 John 3:1-3.
[iii] ibid, p. 222.